By Mike Adaskaveg
Small cars will figure large in Merced Speedway’s future, as will the budding young drivers behind their steering wheels.
The new class of racecars – the “Mini-Late Model” stock cars – are scheduled throughout the season The 600cc motorcycle engine powered mini-cars are popular on the East Coast, where they have taken hold as an inexpensive introductory stock car. (“Late Model” is a term from the early days of NASCAR stock car racing, when the latest model car was taken off of a car lot to race.)
Thanks to the Internet, Merced racer Robby Jeppesen discovered the cars. He told Atwater racecar builder Michael Shearer about them. Shearer loved what he saw so he became a distributor and with the help of Jeppesen they built four of the cars – one for his son Ian, one for Jeppesen’s son Riley and the other two to be driven by teenagers Tim Vaught of Atwater and Timmy Crews of Chowchilla.
“If you are a young racer, age 9-14, micro-sprint cars (miniature versions of full size sprint cars) were the only option when you wanted to move up from go-karts,” Jeppesen explains. ”You steer a micro-sprint car from the center of the car, which does not relate to stock car racing. If you want to learn to drive from the left side of a car, you now have the Mini-Late Model to learn from.”
The cars are capable of high speeds, and are almost as fast as the Hobby Stocks and SportMods – the cars of the two divisions that step drivers up to the semi-pro International Motor Contest Association (IMCA) Modified division.
“The Mini-Late Models are not just for kids,” Shearer adds. “I can comfortably fit in one and I’m a 6’2” full-size man. Anyone who wants to learn to drive, or just wants to have fun racing, can do it in this type of car.”
A Mini-Late Model costs approximately $12,000. The cars are governed by national rules and electronic diagnostics that prevent owners from modifying engines or buying expensive parts to go faster.
“The rules are so specific that drivers will be racing other drivers – not racing their pocket books,” says Shearer. “Not only are the cars safe, they look so cool. You just want to get in and drive one.”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT FOR BECOMING PART OF THE PROGRAM
For 15-year-old Tim Vaught of Atwater, the Mini-Late Model cars will present a new challenge. Vaught, who just got his learner’s permit to drive on the road, is an accomplished micro-sprint driver. He practiced twice behind the wheel of the Mini-Late Model.
“Driving on the left – like driving a street car – will be different if you are used to driving from the center,” Vaught says. “You have to get used to three feet of space alongside you, and to a car that handles differently.”
Where micro-sprint cars use torsion bars for suspension, the Mini-Late Models have full conventional suspensions – with springs and shock absorbers.
“The torsion bars in a micro spring need weight on them – so you are constantly on the gas, sliding through the turns,” Vaught explains. “When driving a Mini-Late Model, you can lift your foot off the gas to set the car where you want it on the track. There is a whole different driving style to learn.”
Vaught, and 10-year-old Riley Jeppesen, race their micro-sprint cars at smaller tracks in Stockton and Lemoore. Jeppesen, an ambassador for the Mini-Late Models, is hoping to bring the cars to the micro-sprint tracks for exhibition races.
“Riley grew up watching full-bodied cars race,” says Robby Jeppesen. “Now, he wants to be a stock car driver.”
Crews, a student at Chowchilla Union High School, and aspiring race car driver, was rewarded with his chance to drive the Mini-Late Model his employer, Mark Morton, won at the Merced Speedway Banquet last December.
“Tim is a great employee – he’ll do anything requested of him without hesitation – including sweeping the floors and taking out the garbage,” Morton says. “The kid deserves a ride in a real race car. It will be an opportunity for him to grow as a race driver.”
Ian Shearer,12, will follow in the footsteps of his mother, Kristie, and dad Michael, who are both standout drivers at Merced Speedway.
During practice, the young drivers sat behind the steering wheels of their Mini-Late Models, listening to directions from their dads as they prepared for opening night, which has finally come.